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Talk Asia

Interview with Shoe Designer Christian Louboutin

Aired August 10, 2012 - 05:30   ET



SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): This is Paris. A capital of fashion and home to many of the most adored shoe designers, including Christian Louboutin. The man behind the iconic red- lacquered sole.

Since 1991 in this compact studio in the heart of the city, Louboutin has created his cabaret-inspired designs. From sexy stilettos to fancy footwear - creations that are sought after by some of the world's most recognized names.

And immortalized in pop culture with this Jennifer Lopez song -

JENNIFER LOPEZ, SINGER (singing): I'm throwing on my Louboutins, throwing on my Louboutins -

SIDNER (voiceover): And, despite his shoes selling for $400 and up, it's not just celebrities who admire and wear his scarlet soles.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because they're sexy and they're fun and they're stylish.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Absolutely great shoes. I mean, really nice, very colorful, very comfortable, you know? Even with such high heels.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's really known for famous red sole and the shoes are very sexy and empowering to women because they're very comfortable and the silhouette's very elegant.

SIDNER (voiceover): This week, "Talk Asia" is in Hong Kong with Christian Louboutin, who tells us why he thinks comfort isn't everything.

SIDNER: OK, any podiatrist is going to look at this and say, "No. This is dangerous for your foot".


CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN, SHOE DESIGNER: I don't know if people can function in that way.

SIDNER (voiceover): And his fight to protect his brand against copycats.

LOUBOUTIN: It's my name, it's my company, it's my signature. So, it's basically my life.


SIDNER: Welcome to "Talk Asia", Christian Louboutin.

LOUBOUTIN: Thank you.

SIDNER: You're welcome. Your name makes women squeal. You are known for sky-high heels with the red sole. And you've sold 500,000 pairs per year. You've got more than 30 stores over 16 countries. And your prices range somewhere from $400 to $6,500 dollars and up. What is it about your shoes that women will pay this kind of money for them?

LOUBOUTIN: Well, I think that women really love shoes. That's the thing. And a lot of women are looking at shoes the way I'm sort of looking at it - with, you know, a lot of attention. A lot of love. But it comes, at first, by the fact that I was raised and brought up by women. So, everything which is actually feminine oriented has been, from my youngest age, very, very natural to me. I have three sisters and another one arrived after. But my sister were all much older than me. So the whole thing around me was really completely feminine oriented. So I think I kept this as a thing strong in my veins.

SIDNER: You have a lot of A-list clients - Madonna, former First Lady, Carla Bruni - are you designing these shoes for any particular type of women, if there is such a thing?

LOUBOUTIN: Well, I am always - there's a first inspiration I have, when I'm drawing shoes, are women themselves. That's a sure thing. And sometimes I'm thinking of a very specific person. Sometime I'm thinking of a very specific character. Sometime I'm thinking of a conversation that I heard or a conversation that I remember of. It really depends - or someone in situation - you know, sometime you just see someone - you cross a woman in the street and the way she walks - the attitude she has walking - you know, it becomes a shoe.

SIDNER: Let me ask you about your shoes. Are your shoes for women? Or are they for men? Because, when a man sees a woman in a high heel - especially if they're six inches high - there's almost an automatic - they can't not look, generally speaking.

LOUBOUTIN: Strangely enough, I really think that shoes are a communication tool between people. And I have been having many examples of that through people. But the nicest example is that this woman - it's a while ago now - she says, "You have to do my wedding shoes". I say, "Well, OK. You know, if there is one that you like here, we can do it in white". She says, "Yes, but it's in two weeks. A little bit more than two weeks". I say, "Well, you know, it's too short notice. It's too difficult. I think I have to say no". And she says, "No, but you still have to, and I'm going to give you the reason".

And so, she explained me that one day she was walking in the street and this man looked at her. And then, two minutes after, the man was in front of her and said, "Do you know that you have red soles". And she pretended that she didn't know. She said, "Oh, really?" They started conversation and, after that, he invited her for tea, etcetera. And then it kept on. And then, eventually, she was going to get married. And then she was ready to get married.

But she was saying that her husband-to-be was often laughing with her, because he's such a shy person, he would always say, "But if you had not had those red soles, there was no way I could run after you, because I had no idea what to say".

When I heard the story, I said, "OK. You know what? Fine. I do the shoe, I do the shoe. I take care of that". And, but so, definitely shoes are often element of communication between people. But, to answer your primary question, which is, "Are shoes - Do I design shoes for men or for women?" I design shoes for women. Absolutely for women.

SIDNER: I want to ask you about the red soles, because you just said that it actually brought two people together and they're getting married.


SIDNER: Most of us ignore the soles of our shoes, right? It's the thing that touches the ground. We pay no attention to it. What on earth gave you the idea to make the soles red?

LOUBOUTIN: So, one of the shoe I started was called "Ponce" (sp). So, it was a high heel pump, pointy, with a big flower outline in different colors. Looking at the drawing, something was better on the drawing. And I could not figure out what was better on the drawing. Because, really, the shoe looked exactly. And then, at one point, I sort of looked at it on every side. And then, at one point it was -

So I had the drawing here, and I had the shoe there. And I was looking at it like that. And it looked really the same. And then, at one point, I turn it like this. So I had this vision that you have, now. And this was all black. It was a big, big mass of black. Which was not existing on my drawing. And it was suddenly the percentage of that black - the non-color - was really too present. And I have a girl in Italy who was trying on the shoe. And so, she was sitting next to me and she was not trying any shoe at this point. And she was painting her nails.

So I grab her nail polish. And I say, "Hold on a second". So, we had a bit of a fight. "Ah, my nail polish". I said, "I can finally see it". So I find me one [UNCLEAR]. And then I painted - I painted the sole. And it made it feel like -

SIDNER: It popped.

LOUBOUTIN: It popped. Like (FRENCH) - we say in French. It really popped. And it was exactly my draw. And I thought, well, it is as simple as that. It's really amounts of color. So I thought, well, every season, I mean to have a colored sole. And then, what happened immediately after - the first season I did a red sole and immediately became a signature.


SIDNER: It sounds like - this has personally hurt you, hasn't it?

LOUBOUTIN: It's my name, it's my company, it's my signature. So it's basically my life.




SIDNER: So, this is your latest store, in Hong Kong.


SIDNER: What do you think?

LOUBOUTIN: I love it.

SIDNER: I can't help it. These are outrageous. But how can a foot be comfortable in this? Is it possible?

LOUBOUTIN: It is possible. You know, you cannot be comfortable on a high heel shoes the way you would be in sneakers. But, you know, not everyone wants to be on sneakers. Sneakers are for different purposes.

Saying that, it's not the height of the hell which gives you the idea if you are going to be comfortable or not. This heel is 16 centimeters. But you actually are walking - the foot is arched on a 10 centimeters. And this is how your foot is arched on the shoe, which is going to give the actual possible comfort or no.

SIDNER: Any podiatrist is going to look at this and say, "No. This is dangerous for your foot".


SIDNER: Do you worry about that? I mean, when a woman sees this, they think, "Oh, it's so beautiful". But, for me, it would be like, "It's very nice, but it'll stay here and I'll look at it, but I don't think I could function in those".

LOUBOUTIN: A lot of people can function. Do not worry.


SIDNER: I have to ask you this question, because my mother asked me this question. And we're quite close. She questions everything I do. She says, "How can you justify charging this much money for a shoe?"

LOUBOUTIN: It's very, very simple. Because I've been having, not from your mother, but from other people. A shoe - if you take a pump - a high-heeled pump - and you take another pump - high-heeled pump. Black, thin-heeled. One is costing a hundred dollars. The other one is costing 500 dollars. It looks the same height, except they are, you know -

So, why there is a difference? Now, you take a bottle of wine - 75 centiliters - that shape. You take another bottle of wine - same shape - red wine again, 75 centiliters. The price goes from one to 10 times the price. Everybody - everyone can understand. You have cheap wine, and then you have more expensive wine. An example of a shoe like this, for instance - it will stay on the last much more than a day. When a shoe sort of quickly done, which costs less money, would be done in two hour - this would take probably a week to do.

That's very different. But once a woman puts it on, she just feels it and she knows about it. It's exactly like a bottle of wine.

SIDNER: With what is going on in the Eurozone - with the austerity measures and with what's happening to Greece's economy - do you ever feel guilty about the prices that you charge for your shoes?

LOUBOUTIN: As a person, I never feel guilty about anything, first of all. But also, I do not feel guilty to do something which is considered luxury, because this is my work. And I think that, in difficult periods - if you look at after the Second World War, for instance - if you take the industry of cinema. It's never been more flourishing, but also more embellished. Why? Because, you know, at the end of a war, people didn't want to add to all the miseries they'd been living through.

SIDNER: I have to ask you - since you talked about some of the other things going on in the world. Your name was in the headlines recently because Asma al-Assad was looking up your shoes, apparently, from some emails that were - text messages that were obtained - while this whole thing with her husband was happening. Where he was bombing his own people. What did you make of that, when you saw this headline?

LOUBOUTIN: Well, you know, this headline is considering a brand. And this brand has my name. That's all. I felt that it's very rude to end up talking of so little animals like shoes when people are suffering in a country. And I feel that even this journalist who has been talking about that, she should better think about people. It's quite obscene that people are talking about that, when it's about a country and behind that is a country which is obviously suffering.


LOUBOUTIN: The first time I came to Beijing, which is like 10 years ago. It has changed, but I had really liked it. I was quite surprised and interested by the whole energy and the youth, enthusiasm.


SIDNER: May I ask you about Asia? You're here, in Hong Kong. This is your second store.

LOUBOUTIN: This is the second store in Hong Kong, yes.

SIDNER: And I have to ask you about one of the issues that exist, particularly in China, but in the rest of Asia as well, which is copyright. Were you worried about that? And how important is your trademark to you and your brand?

LOUBOUTIN: Well, it is important. And right now, for instance, I'm in the middle of a lawsuit. And so, it is very important. But, you see, like for instance, copyright - when you're talking copyright and as you say with China and copies - you know, for instance, one person which is actually trying to damage my company now is the PPR Group. And it's a French group via YSL. The PPR CEO or whatever - owner - Mr. Francois-Henri Pinault, has really tried to damage my brand.

And so, you don't need to go to China to have nasty trying to damage your brand. You can find it at the end of your street. People you knew and you thought were normal and honest. It's not the case.

SIDNER: It sounds like it's - this has personally hurt you, hasn't it?

LOUBOUTIN: It has, of course. It's normal. You know, I'm behind my company. My company has been a big part of my life. And it's not that I been buying a company or that my father bought a company and tried to do something out of it. You know, it's not the same thing. It's my name, it's my company, it's my signature. So, it's basically my life. Against some person who thinks that he's able, because they have all the money in the world and all the lawyers in the world, to break you because you just can't stand up for yourself. Whatever I think, I'll have to stand up for myself. And whenever the lawsuit goes through, I'll have to stand up for it.


SIDNER: I hear that you have a shoe for a girl like me, called "CNN Girl". Is that true?

LOUBOUTIN: Yes. Absolutely.




SIDNER: I hear that you have a shoe for a girl like me, called "CNN Girl". Is that true?

LOUBOUTIN: Yes. Absolutely.

SIDNER: Where did that come from? What does the shoe look like?

LOUBOUTIN: I thought, at one point, to do a shoe where it's a girl would be a journalist covering like war or things. She would have to be streetwise, she would have to be quick, but she would have to have a lot of animal. So, it's a high-heeled boot, so it can be seductive. And it can be helpful to be seductive in any type of situation.

But at the same time, there is a pocket where you can put your telephone. There is another pocket where you can put your notes. So it's things in leather where you can put your pens and things. So, if you have lost your suitcase, you have lost everything in the middle of nowhere. If you are on the "CNN Girl", you can still work.

SIDNER: Although I have to tell you - I've been to a couple of wars, and I would not wear heels. You might have to take the heel off this.


SIDNER: Let me ask you about your work. What was it that attracted you to shoes and to drawing shoes in the beginning?

LOUBOUTIN: My first thing with shoes was showgirls. And as a young teenager, I would always go to see a musicals in Paris. And I had not realized that the music hall - as a child, I had not realized that, in a music hall, that those girls weren't really something else than exotic birds. You know, for me, they were women, but they were really the idea of, like, really birds of paradise. So I thought, well, I would like to design shoes for those birds of paradise. And so I really started thinking of designing for music hall girls. For performers.

SIDNER: I have to ask you about your childhood. Because you mentioned you went to - you know, you saw showgirls - burlesque shows - at a very young age. 12 was it? Was it the first time you went?

LOUBOUTIN: Yes, 12, 13.

SIDNER: Describe the scene for us. Because a lot of people go, "Oh, he was 12 when he was at burlesque shows?"

LOUBOUTIN: I think I was mature when I was 12. Funny enough, a big difference between girls and boys at that type of age - meaning 12, 13, and 14 - is girls are more mature. And it's a very simple thing. Boys are different than that. But funny enough, I could see that. But as I was so much surrounded by women, I could actually see how much boys, even at my age, were less mature than girls of my age. But is nothing shocking to see girls that were dancing half-naked with feathers. It's fine.

SIDNER: Completely normal to you?

LOUBOUTIN: Yes, absolutely.

SIDNER: Is it true that you got kicked out of school three times?


SIDNER: What were the reasons?

LOUBOUTIN: I mean, I was barely at school. I was barely at school. And the fact - it's true, the fact that I was going out quite early when I was 12, 13. I started to go out etcetera. I started to go out in clubs when I was 14. I would start to go out so often - just sort of made me a little bit not interested anymore in school. And also - also I just thought, "Well, there is not so much to learn that I'm happy to learn at that school". I don't say it's right or all that right. I just - I was just not interested anymore. And I was really ready to actually start a life. I started to work when I was 17 and I really don't regret it.

SIDNER: I have to ask you about this, because there are a lot of people that would say, you know, "You can't succeed without, you know, a formal education". But you have a castle, yes? When people think of fairy tales - when they imagine their wildest fairy tale, a castle is usually in there somewhere from childhood. What's it like living your fairy tale?

LOUBOUTIN: It really started as an accident in a way. You know, I just - I had designed shoes for all the people and I had to stop and I had started - this was 1988 - I had started to -

SIDNER: What made you stop?

LOUBOUTIN: What made me stop - I had worked with someone that I really respected a lot and I loved. And after working for such a fascinating person, for me, I thought, "Well, I don't work for other people". So I stopped and I started to do landscape - landscape architect. But I was missing the shoes and, in a way, I was missing design. And, being a landscape architect, you need a lot of patience. And I was in my 20s. When you're in your 20s, patience is not exactly the biggest common quality that people have at that type of age.

So, designing shoes for the fashion world is much more like of an impatient type of world. So I sort of was missing it. And I was chasing a lamp in a store in a gallery - this is '91 at this point -

SIDNER: So, you saw a lamp, OK.

LOUBOUTIN: I saw a lamp that I was trying to buy. The person wouldn't sell it to me, so I was coming back and forth, day after day, trying to buy it. And then at one point, he says, "What about your shoes? What about your design?" He knew me. I said, "I stopped". Explaining him what I just explained you. And he said, "So if you miss it a bit, why don't you do your own thing?" And I never thought about it. I said, "Well?"

He said, "There is a store there, at the end of the gallery. Why don't you get it, you know? It's an available place". I said, "Well, I never thought about it. Ended up looking at the place, thinking that was an idea. Had dinner two of three days after with my two best friends, Henri (sp) and Bruno (sp) - two best friend from my oldest age. And I was discussing that, and they say, "Why don't we do the thing? Yes, let's build the company". This was our chance.

SIDNER: I have to ask one more thing. What is the most outrageous or expensive shoe that you've been asked to make?

LOUBOUTIN: The most outrageous shoe that I had to do was a shoe where the person gave me stones - precious stones - and say that I could do anything with precious stones.

SIDNER: Are you talking about rubies or diamonds? What did they give you?

LOUBOUTIN: We're talking rubies, actually. And so, I did a sandal. And it was just like a sandal with rubies. And in the drawing, I did the sole paved in rubies, which was all solid block of rubies. And the person looked at the drawing and said, "It's perfect. It's very, very beautiful". I said, "Well, I just drew, you know, the stone on the sole. But actually, we shouldn't have them on the sole, because then you can't walk". And the person say, "Well, it's not a shoe to walk, anyway". So the whole shoe was a block of ruby. And it actually was really, really, beautiful.

SIDNER: Thank you so much.